By Chris Lotsbom, @ChrisLotsbom
(c) 2015 Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved
BOSTON (20-Jun) — Standing in front of a large, 50-person crowd yesterday with a microphone in his hand, 26-year-old Stephen Sambu looked incredibly comfortable. The University of Arizona alum showed no sign of any nerves, at ease speaking to a room full of runners at the Boston Marathon adidas RunBase on Boylston Street, steps from the Boston Marathon finish line. In roughly 36 hours time, he’ll be racing the fifth annual B.A.A. 10-K here, aiming for his third consecutive title.
“It’s like home, man,” he told Race Results Weekly, speaking exclusively after the clinic had ended. “Something about the Northeast, the city. It’s comfortable.”
A simple glance at Sambu’s resume indicates a string of successes in America’s Northeast Corridor. Over the last three years he’s picked up wins in Boston (2013 and 2014 B.A.A. 10-K’s), New York City (2014 UAE Healthy Kidney 10-K), Oyster Bay, N.Y. (2013 and 2014 Oyster Bay Turkey Trot), and on Cape Cod in Falmouth, Mass. (2014 New Balance Falmouth Road Race). He’s notched second place finishes at this year’s B.A.A. 5-K, UAE Healthy Kidney 10-K, and NYC Half, and has finished first in both the 2013 and 2014 B.A.A. Distance Medley (the three-race series that includes the B.A.A. 5-K, B.A.A. 10-K, and B.A.A. Half-Marathon).
When asked his key to success here in the Northeast, the native of Kaptagat, Kenya, smiles and tilts his head. After shaking his head once more, he laughs.
“I love this place. I’ve been doing most of my races, almost everything on the East coast. So many people know you, they love you,” he says, speaking softly. “Everything is perfect. You get here, they welcome you. That’s what I like about coming here. You run fast because you don’t stress about everything.”
Sambu’s stress-free mentality helps him excel both on and off the roads. At the B.A.A. 10-K clinic, he smiled and mingled with runners, posing for pictures and continually signed autographs. Unlike other places on the road racing circuit, he feels like a local both here and in New York, welcomed and lauded as if he’s lived here all his life.
“So many people [here], they love running. Even if they don’t know you, they start cheering for you,” he says in a lively tone. “Even if you are so tired, they give you energy to help continue pushing. They are very uplifting.”
Sambu is a true believer that when you’re comfortable and relaxed, then you perform your best. Perhaps that‘s why he‘s had some of his best races in this region, setting personal bests at 5000m (indoors), 8-K, 10-K, 10 miles, and in the half-marathon.
Behind his bright smile, Sambu possesses a deep desire to continue to improve and etch his name into Boston running lore. In order to win his third straight B.A.A. 10-K title, Sambu will have to defeat 2011 Boston Marathon champion and event record holder Geoffrey Mutai. Mutai won the B.A.A. 10-K in both 2011 and 2012, and aims to return to the top of the podium on Sunday.
“Boston is like a home, I love Boston,” said Mutai, just as comfortable in the Bay State as Sambu. “I want to win for the people of Boston.”
Last year, the pair battled valiantly throughout the race’s first 8 kilometers before Sambu broke away for a ten-second win, 27:25 to 27:35. Those were the first and third marks, respectively, in the world last year.
Well aware of his compatriot’s skill and talent, Sambu expects another battle come Sunday. Three weeks ago at the UAE Healthy Kidney 10-K, Sambu lost a footrace to the finish against American Ben True, 28:12.4 to 28:12.5. In third was Mutai, timing 28:20.
“I know Geoffrey is fit,” Sambu said. “I raced against him in Healthy Kidney and he is fit. We pushed together until 800 meters to go. I know he’s in shape, maybe better shape than that. I’ll try to win it again, but I know it is going to be tough.”
Mutai’s career has been one for the history books, complete with event records at the Boston Marathon, TCS New York City Marathon, and B.A.A. 10-K, as well as marathon wins in Berlin, Eindhoven, and Monaco. While Sambu may not have as many global victories as his colleague, he does boast the determination and confidence to stick his nose in every race — a quality that has made Mutai one of the most successful racers in the world.
Training in Tucson, Ariz., under his college coach James Li, Sambu has perfected his ability to compete, plain and simple. Running roughly 100 miles a week, he’s gained an appreciation for battling up front, fearlessly pushing the pace no matter whom he’s competing against. At the B.A.A. 10-K last year, Sambu set a world best for 8-K en route to his 27:25 victory (he shares the 8-K record with Mutai).
This year, Sambu’s 10-K season best of 27:30 ranks as the world’s fastest time once again, run whilst winning the Morrisons Great Manchester Run 10-K last month. On Sunday, he expects to be right behind the lead vehicle, battling for the win with Mutai and whoever else dares challenge him. If conditions cooperate, Sambu believes he can come close to Mutai’s event mark of 27:19.
Pausing briefly, Sambu reflects fondly on his time racing here. He looks forward to seeing the supportive crowds out in force on Sunday — Bostonians he’s come to love, just like they’ve embraced him.
“I feel like I am strong, because I am able to hang in there no matter what pace or if the pace changes. It makes me feel like I can do real good,” he began, once again smiling. To cap off this homecoming, he wants to take home the winner’s $10,000 check. “I feel good, am in shape, have no problems with my legs, and I hope Sunday I feel really good like I feel right now.”